What (or who) do you think about when you read the title of this post?
Maybe you clicked it because you’re tired of not being able to forgive someone who has wronged you. And now you’re looking forward finding out how to fix that.
Or maybe you were thinking something more along the lines of “Why would I even want to learn how to forgive someone? He’s clearly wrong but let’s see what this guy has to say.”
If that’s the case, I understand how you feel. Why would you have to accept someone else’s behavior towards you when they are clearly wrong? Depending on how fudged up what they did was, your feelings about it can range from a simple “I don’t want to” to actually believing what they did is impossible or unnatural to forgive.
Still, there are always good reasons to forgive people for the hurt they’ve caused you. The most obvious one would be not having to spend a large portion of your time being angry about shit that’s not even happening right now.
When you know that every time you’re going to randomly think of (or run into) a specific person, it can ruin your mood, then that is something that seriously impacts your own freedom to enjoy life to the fullest. But beyond that, learning to forgive also better for your physical health, as we’ll see later in this post.
What Does It Mean to Forgive Someone?
In essence, forgiveness means admitting that someone acted towards you in a way you feel hurt by, or don’t condone, but still loving them in spite of that.
Now when I say “loving them”, I don’t mean romantic love per sé. I mean loving them like someone still loves their dog even though he did a doo doo on the carpet that one time. But then again that may not be the best comparison ?
The question is of course… How can you possibly start to think lovingly of someone who is such a bad person that every time you see them, it makes you consider actually adopting that same misbehaving dog, just so you could train it to make a doo doo all over that person’s face?
It all starts with separating their behavior from who they actually are. It’s surprisingly easy confuse these two. When someone cuts you off in traffic, you immediately think that person is a dick. But he’s not. He’s just someone who made a dick move. Either unconsciously or because he thought it was justified for whatever reason seemed fit (like running late).
Forgiveness starts with the realization that a lot of the evil that people do, is done for one of three reasons:
• They had good intentions but made bad choices in spite of it
• They are ignorant of the consequences of their actions (“they know not what they do”)
• They know they’re doing something bad. But they believe that in this particular situation, it is not wrong to do it, even though they would normally disapprove. (This can still be true on a bigger scale like with war, terrorism or genocide.)
If this is someone who has wronged you multiple times, or in an especially cruel way, you may be thinking “Yeah… I get what you’re trying to say. But this person is really different. They’re just completely rotten inside and like to hurt people for no reason.”
On the surface, it sounds reasonable that what I wrote may be true for most people, but that this person is the exception to the rule. I’ve felt that way about people before. But unless you’re dealing with a violent psychopath, they are most likely not an exception.
It is possible that the first 2 reasons I mentioned were indeed not applicable. Maybe they’re not ignorant and know what they’re doing. And maybe their intention was to hurt you. But then it just means that they did it for the third reason. Because they believed that in this particular situation, something justified their actions.
It may be hard to think of a situation when treating someone badly is actually justified, but let’s take a step back for a second. You’ve been there yourself, haven’t you?
You may even feel that way about this very person you’re not forgiving right now. Let’s do a little thought experiment:
What if you saw that person who wronged you right now. And you saw some random dude walk up to them and slap them in the face. Would you say to yourself “Yeah… (s)he had it coming. Karma’s a beach.” ? Or even think about how you would’ve enjoyed to get a chance to slap them yourself?
It may not always be easy to understand the complex reasonings other people use to justify their own behavior in their head. It’s hard to empathize with someone who justifies a genocide because he believes that ethnic group has no right to live. But to hit it a bit closer to home: I’m sure “He started it!!!” are words you have actually said before in your life. And when you said it, it justified your own bad behavior.
The excuses this person uses may be different ones but that doesn’t matter, it’s still the same mechanism at work in their head. Whatever their reasons are for hurting you, to them they feel just as valid as your reasons for hating them do.
I had a hard time grasping this in the past. I used to judge the bejeebles out of people who did “bad” things. I even used to believe they should bring back “eye for an eye”-style punishments in our justice system. But in the end I realized that was just my ego trying to feel superior over other people.
Realizing that you too, sometimes trick yourself into thinking your bad behavior is okay, or that you too are sometimes ignorant and make mistakes, is an essential part to recognizing the other person is just as human as you.
Nearly everyone on this planet thinks they’re a better person than most people (and if they think the opposite, the issue is that they need to forgive themselves). I really don’t think there are a lot of people walking around who see themselves as “An unreasonable person who treats everyone badly even when they haven’t done anything wrong.” Even the people who seem like the biggest a-holes in the world probably don’t see themselves that way.
You cannot forgive someone for being an a-hole though. It wouldn’t be true forgiveness if you still resent them as a person, when what hurt you was a specific action.
So to forgive someone, this part is really essential:
Understanding that just like you, this other person still believes they’re the hero in their own story somehow.
Just like you, they are seeking happiness and avoiding hurt in life.
Just like you do, they are trying to fulfill their needs and to avoid being lonely or sad. Even when their actions clearly don’t seem to steer them in that direction.
Because just like you, they are trying to make sense of this confusing thing called life, and are learning lessons from the huge bunch of mistakes they’ll inevitably make. Just like you.
Doesn’t Forgiving People Make You Weak?
It seems that way, doesn’t it? We tend to think that if we were to forgive people too easily, we’d become some kind of doormat everyone can just walk over with no consequences. That being able to forgive the people who do us harm will only leave us with no spine and attract more misery into our lives.
But that’s not the case at all. You’re confusing cause and effect here:
Forgiving everyone does not turn you into some kind of weasel (no offense to any actual weasels who somehow learned how to read and have access to the internet). Not having strong personal boundaries does that. It’s perfectly possible to be generously forgiving and “unfuckable with” at the same time.
Setting, maintaining, and communicating strong personal boundaries does that. A strong sense of integrity to your own values does that. On the other hand, there’s plenty of unforgiving people out there that keep getting fudged with time and time again. So the two are completely unrelated.
Besides, forgiving someone on an emotional level, does not mean you have to physically keep them in your life ?
Any smart person knows you shouldn’t stay in a relationship with someone who beats you up for example. But once again that doesn’t mean you can’t forgive them for their actions.
Forgive, but remember and learn. Remain alert for red flags in the future so you can avoid having to deal with similar issues again. The forgiving part is essential here. Because as long as you brand them as a “bad person” in your mind, you will not learn the lesson and keep running into the same problems again. But once you’ve forgiven them, you’ll look at them with a sense of love and understanding, that will help you avoid such situations from new on.
For example: Years ago I had a friend who deliberately tried to sabotage all my other relationships. Even if it meant lying to those people about me. I’ve since forgiven him. Because I now understand he has good intentions, and which part of his mindset caused it. The experience taught me early on not to get involved with anyone who doesn’t love themselves in a healthy way ever again.
Forgiving does not make you weak. It makes you stronger.
What If This Person Doesn’t Deserve to Be Forgiven?
This is a valid argument. There is no deserving forgiveness in reality. Nature doesn’t forgive. When you threaten an animal’s children, it will try to kill you. And if humans still lived in nature, behaving badly to everyone would get you kicked out of the tribe. Where you’d soon die alone because you no longer had other people to help you survive.
But when you focus on that, you are missing the point.
Forgiveness is not setting the other person free, it is about setting yourself free.
Because when you hold a grudge, who is it hurting more? The one who carries the grudge? Or the other person that doesn’t even know what it feels like?
Chronically hating a person is like drinking the poison someone gives you and then expecting that person to die.
And that metaphor isn’t even far from home. It actually does have a toxic effect on your body. Holding a grudge can be really bad for your health in the long run. Every unforgiven event or person in your life creates a physical and psychological tension and stress response you carry with you wherever you go. Your resting heart rate is faster, your blood pressure is higher. Over time this makes certain muscles chronically stiff and fuck ups your posture. So far I’ve found every posture problem I had was just as much an emotional problem as a physical one.
Prolonged resentment for something that happened to you can make you chronically anxious and depressed. Bitterness also affects your metabolism, immune response, organ function and makes you age faster. As evidenced by that one cynical uncle you have that looks ten years older than he really is.
So yeah, someone fucked with you in the past. And it felt bad. But if anything, that should be a motivator not to let them fuck up your present and future too.
…But, Doesn’t Someone Really Need to Teach This Person a Lesson?
No. Why am I so sure of this?
It’s not so much that someone needs to teach this person a lesson. It’s that they need to learn the lesson.
These are 2 different things.
For 6 years, teachers taught me lessons in French every week. But I didn’t learn those lessons, because I didn’t care about learning French. The result is that I’m still not very good at French.
So yes, they may need to learn that their behavior was terrible. But no teacher is going to be able to teach them until they want to learn it. And to take it one step further, you’d probably be a horrible teacher until you forgive them.
Because what happens when you try to communicate something to someone while you still feel angry?
That’s right, they get defensive and stop listening.
A lot of people realize all to well that the other person won’t listen, so they try to go about it another way: They seek some form of revenge, so they can “get even” and teach them a lesson through experience.
But even that won’t work. Take gang wars for example: What happens when someone wrongs another gang and they take revenge on that person?
Not once does it happen that the offender says “Oh I’m sorry, now that you’ve killed my family and friends I realize it was wrong of me to breach your trust like that. And I’ll never do it again.”
Because when you take revenge on someone, they will just be so pissed off by what you did, that they’ll now seek to take revenge on you and restart the whole cycle.
It can be really frustrating to see that you can not show someone how “wrong” what they did was. Especially when you still care about them and know that if they learn their lesson, it will make them happier as well. But that’s just how life is. You can show someone the door, but you can’t make them walk through it.
Some of the people I know who are most offended by my articles are the ones who could benefit most from them. I could argue with these people. But there’s nothing I could say that will help them. Just like there are many lessons I need to learn that are obvious for other people, but I’m not ready to grasp yet.
If you really want to forgive someone, you need to let go of your attachment to them changing as a person. Because as long as you do this, you are avoiding your own responsibility to be fully happy. By resenting what they did, you put that full responsibility on their shoulders. Now they need to change in order for you to be happy again. But the reality is that it is impossible for them to change it even if they tried, because you feel unhappy about an action that they have taken in the past, which cannot be changed anymore.
So what you’re really doing is waiting for a miracle here. And it’s not gonna come. The only way to be truly happy here is to recognize your own responsibility in dealing with these feelings and releasing yourself of the burden of the grudge you carry.
Why Is Forgiving Someone So Hard?
As you’ll recall, the path to true forgiveness begins by realizing the other person is just like you. So far, we’ve looked at that by comparing your own positive qualities and feelings (good intentions, striving for happiness, etc.) with that of the other person.
But there as another aspect to it that makes forgiveness more scary. And it’s one we don’t often like to admit.
Accepting that the person who hurt you so badly is just like you, also means accepting some things about yourself that you don’t like.
The less you’re able to accept the parts of your personality you don’t love yet, the less you’ll be able to let go of other people’s mistreatment of you. And the more of a hateful, judgmental you’ll be towards others.
• When you can’t forgive other people for their adultery or judge them for being a “slut” or a “sinner”, you need to explore and accept your own sexuality.
• When you look down on people you perceive as narcissists or inflated egos, it’s usually a strategy your own ego uses to hide the fact that you hate yourself deep down, which for most people is very hard to face. (Interestingly, a lack of self-love is one of the main causes of narcissism in people. )
• When you have a hard time forgiving lies, there’s a good chance you are not being entirely honest with yourself about a lot of things.
It may not be the most fun thing to hear, but this is a main reason forgiveness is often so hard.
Because when we accept that someone else is just a human being doing the best they can, it means that we ourselves, are also able to hurt other people. In ways that make them feel exactly the same about us.
So every time we forgive someone for committing something we “consider” a crime, it means we choose to recognize a dark part of ourselves that able to do the exact same thing.
But don’t let that realization wear you down:
Becoming conscious of your own capacity for evil, will do a lot more to prevent you from doing such things than telling yourself you’re the good person in your story.
After all, most wars are fought by people who are convinced they’re the good guys in the story.
Not by people who admit they can and will be wrong some times ?